Lawsuits over university COVID-19 shutdown can proceed

May 18, 2021 GMT

DOVER, Del. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday refused to dismiss two lawsuits filed against the University of Delaware by current and former students who argue that they are entitled to refunds for services they didn’t receive when officials shut down the campus last spring because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Judge Stephanos Bibas ruled that while the students may not be entitled to tuition refunds, they can at least pursue reimbursement claims for student fees that covered services they didn’t receive.

“At a minimum, the fees claims are going to survive and proceed to discovery here,” he said.

The plaintiffs sued the school for breach of contract and unjust enrichment last year after UD officials stopped offering in-person classes and closed campus facilities. The lawsuits, which will now be consolidated, are purported class actions seeking reimbursements on behalf of all students who paid for the spring 2020 semester.

University attorneys filed motions to dismiss the lawsuits, arguing that the students failed to identify any specific contractual term that was breached, and that the school has the right to change its policies, fees and other charges without notice.

“They have to point to a particular promise for in-person education. I’ve not seen one here,” James Taylor, an attorney representing the university, said during a virtual court hearing Tuesday.

Taylor also noted that university catalog makes clear that students are required to pay tuition and fees when they register.

“This is a contract and agreement. ... Once your register, tuition and fees are due in full,” he said.

Roy Willey IV, an attorney for one group of plaintiffs, argued that the university should not be allowed to keep money for services it offered but didn’t provide.

“They promised one thing, and didn’t deliver it,” he said.

Even if the university can demonstrate that it did not violate an express contractual provision, the plaintiffs are still entitled to refunds, Willey added.

“We’re not suing for specific performance. We’re not trying to make them do anything that they didn’t do or didn’t want to do,” Willey explained. “All we are saying is that, based on what we paid for and what you actually did, we’re entitled to a reasonable, fair, prorated refund.”

Willey noted that students couldn’t go to the gym, the student health and counseling center, or other campus facilities, or engage in activities covered by fees that they had paid. He also said students were forced into virtual learning after having specifically paid tuition to attend classes on campus.

“The University of Delaware, unlike some schools, does also offer online education for a significantly lower cost,” Willey noted. “... So it is implausible, it is frankly surprising, to hear counsel for the University of Delaware stand before the court and say ‘We never intended to promise our students an on-campus education.’”

Taylor, the attorney for the university, argued that there is nothing on the school’s website or promotional materials to suggest that students could expect to attend in-person classes in the face of a pandemic.

Pushing back against Taylor, the judge noted that, if there is an implied promise, rather than an express guarantee, of what students can expect, “there might well be a restitution problem here.”

“The tuition was definitely paid to on-campus costs. You charged much less for a fully remote degree when you were offering it,” Bibas noted. “... You’re holding on to money for something that you didn’t provide and you didn’t spend the money to provide.”

In the end, however, Bibas indicated that he did not think the contractual terms regarding tuition were express enough to be enforceable.

“I think the shape of any implied understanding is a more interesting and closer question,” the judge said. “My understanding is that the fees promises do appear to be specific enough to be enforceable, and so at least the fees portion of the suit will survive.”